In a co-working space in Brooklyn, New York, Ian Temple and his team – including remote working colleagues in LA, Montreal, Georgia and North Carolina – have been developing a platform designed to help today’s musician develop their skills and their business. Soundfly offers a range of cross-genre and cross-skills-set courses, many free, ranging from ‘Building a better band’ and ‘Demystifying synths’ to ‘How to read music’ and ‘Orchestrating for strings’. Anita Holford spoke with Ian ahead of the launch of a new set of courses (now launched, as ‘Mainstage’) – offering a more intensive month-long programme of tuition including mentoring and an online community.
Tell me a bit about you, and the journey that led you to start Soundfly?
Like many of today’s musicians I didn’t actually study music. I studied International Development, working with refugees once I left college, and touring in bands on the side. Then me and a few friends started a nonprofit called The Future Project – a movement to turn schools into places that unlock the passion and purpose of everyone inside them. It’s now in seven cities across the country.
The idea for Soundfly popped up as The Future Project was growing. I’d discovered that I had a passion for education as well as my passion for music, and I felt there was an opportunity to provide world class accessible music education to anyone. I’m by no means a serial entrepreneur, but I did want to have that experience of starting another really exciting project that makes a difference in the world.
How have you picked up the entrepreneurial skills needed to develop a business?
I think it was my band experience. Helping lead the development and creation of this six-piece instrumental band; making something that wasn’t there before; developing a brand; taking concrete actions to move everything forward; making mistakes – so it all started with music really.
How did Soundfly come about, and when? Was there a lightbulb moment?
I guess it was seeing how many online education opportunities there are and feeling like there wasn’t one for musicians. There are code schools, language schools, even university courses through things like EdEx, but all musicians had was YouTube. And while that’s great, the tuition is of varying quality, there’s no real structure, you don’t have a day-by-day, week-by-week programme.
The actual model has been a far longer journey. It started with videos and a course for beginner piano, because that’s all I knew how to teach. But that was just a way to take a step towards my goals. Since then, over the past two years, we’ve done a ton of research, worked with incredible experts, and have an ongoing project called The Learning Experience where we’re constantly diving in to the research around learning and looking at other online schools to find out what works best.
For example, we know that attention spans are short online, so our free courses can be completed in one sitting. That’s very intentional. We want people to get a win every time they go to a course. In Demystifying synths you gain a concrete skill and piece of knowledge that you can then apply … and lots of information that can help drive further learning. We also worked with Professor Ethan Hein, adjunct professor at New York University’s Music Experience Design Lab on Theory for producers, to get expert input on education and technology.
Having people actively learn from our courses is really important. You have to take action in order to learn. But online learning is inherently passive. Even a quiz or a feedback mechanism won’t teach you your instrument or how to take a stride forward in composing. So we’re constantly exploring how to encourage offline action using online tools.
Is Soundfly just for individuals – could it work in education?
We’re also working in schools to empower teachers in the classroom – every so often we take a day off, and take over part of a school for a day.
The classes we’ve been working with so far use our free courses as home work for students, or as an assignment. We’ve also seen it used in the classroom, where students get through a single micro course in a sitting and write a music piece at the end. One teacher is using Theory for producers with her high school students, and it’s really helping with differentiated learning, supporting students individually.
We have a guidance document – Soundfly for educators: approaches for using our online courses with your students – which is specifically for teachers and lecturers.
In US schools, there are so many difficulties right now with music, some schools don’t even have a music programme. So for us as music education entrepreneurs, we want to support teachers – but there are many challenges.
What have been your biggest challenges in starting Soundfly?
There are many, when you’re starting an entrepreneurial project – that’s one of the reasons it’s so important to be passionate about what you’re doing. The best predictor of success is perseverance. And constant tweaking, iterating, getting creative in response to problems.
Our first year was full of challenge – finding the right people, building a team, finding the right audience. We have made tons of mistakes, but I love the ability to test the strategy and maybe it’s wrong but no-one’s telling us – it’s called bias to action.
We started with beginner piano and found pretty quickly that’s not what people wanted, it’s so hard to learn online! We realised that if you catch people that can already play a bit, their motivation is much higher, and so we feel Soundfly exists mostly for musicians or musically minded people who want to take it to the next level.
You have a real mix of genres and methods of making music – from classical to music tech –why is that?
Today’s musicians are more and more just not about those genre divides. You may have someone who’s studied cello but knows nothing about production and wants to understand how to get their music out there; a classical pianist but wants to know how to write a pop song; someone who’s tinkered with the guitar, but wants to know how to put it together creating a song with synths. Music is a lifelong journey, there’s so much to learn, you can always continue.
One of the cool things about being a musician today is that you CAN learn everything. We’re catering to a more comprehensive musician and our audience is loving that. I’m amazed by how many students take every course we offer.
Can you describe what’s in a Soundfly course, what makes it different?
I talk a lot about offline action via online tools. All of our courses have videos and written material, as well as activities and challenges to get you in action. We’re trying to provide lots of opportunities for easy wins. Our goal is to strip away all the things you don’t have to worry about, and allow you to use your brainpower and attention to focus on the actual learning part.
There are 41 courses in total. The free courses are short, part of a series, but focus on once piece of information, leaving you with a challenge to get you into action, and a specific outcome that you can work with it for the rest of your life.
The new Mainstage paid-for courses are one-month to four-month intensive programmes, but there are a couple of different levels of payment ranging from 49 to 259 dollars to keep things accessible. We still focus on outcomes that are highly specific and can be accomplished in a month, but every week there will be a specific challenge and outcome.
What made you decide to run Soundfly as a business, rather than a charity?
We did consider a nonprofit model, because we’re all about the vision and the mission first, and delivering impact, but there are so many challenges. You end up having two sets of customers, the people you’re hoping to impact, and the people you need to get money from, and the two needs can be totally separate.
But if Soundfly is wildly successful and I was able to start a non-profit wing, I’d focus on those places and populations that don’t have access to music education in a serious way, or that need supplemental support.
If you were to do it all over again, what would you do differently/the same?
The big thing I’ve learned is to hire for values and willingness to learn over experience. The team is everything for an entrepreneurial project and I’m really lucky that we have a fantastic team, who are passionate about what we’re doing and share the exact values, culture and drive. We like to tell this story that on our team right now the CEO has never been a CEO, head of marketing has never been a head of marketing, the head of web development had never built a website. Yet we had 100,000 visitors to our site last month, just a year after launching, and we have 16,000 students in 60 countries.
Find out more
Website – www.Soundfly.com
Soundfly’s fun introductory video
DOWNLOAD: Soundfly for educators: approaches for using our online courses with your students
Trust your creativity – Soundfly’s latest video
Image from Pixabay, reproduced under Creative Commons CC0.